By Allen Penticoff
Try to envision this future. You are driving home on a snowy night. Three inches of snow has already piled up alongside the road, but the snowplows are nowhere to be seen. The road is clear because it is heated. Lighted lines make it easy to see where the winding road goes despite the darkness. Suddenly the road ahead has big lit up spots crossing the road. Deer passing over the road have made the pressure sensitive panels light up. Your car has already slowed a bit to be wary of them. Fortunately, the lighted panels have gone dark. The deer are safely across the road. The road turns yellow, then red to indicate you are approaching an intersection. Your car knows this and comes to a stop because there is conflicting traffic. Had there been none, it would have rolled on through. You probably have not looked up from watching funny cats on your YouTube channel to notice any of this.
You arrive at home, driving over your personal solar panels that have been keeping your house going all day. The garage door opens as you approach and closes behind you. Dinner is ready because the refrigerator/microwave was programed to have your favorite dish ready on your arrival. Not much to do but relax after the stress-free ride home from work.
In 2006, Scott and Julie Brusaw of Sandpoint, Idaho, began work on a dream. Solar roads. While talked about for some time, nobody had tried to make the sturdy solar panels that could replace road surfaces. Armed with two U.S. Department of Transportation grants and over $2.3 million in Indiegogo crowd funding, the Brusaw’s have made this dream a practical reality. But there have been many hurdles in this quintessential American enterprise story.
However thorny the engineering and funding path, by 2011 they had a working prototype installed in their own driveway. These 70-pound hexagon panels are now in public spaces being tested by a growing list of communities. The panels fit together like honeycomb. The surface is a bit lumpy and gritty. The tempered glass can withstand the weight of a tractor-trailer driving over it. Built in are LED lights and heating elements. The heating elements will keep the panels above freezing, eliminating the need for snow removal or salt to keep the roads clean. The rough surface will provide stopping for vehicles at 80 mph in wet conditions.
Internal LED lighting can be computer configured to make lines on the roadway, signage (such as stop or directions), or just be pretty designs if appropriate to the space. Anything you can dream of. The panels are pressure sensitive so they can light up when walked on or used. This feature could be tied into a security system as well as count traffic or monitor/control speed.
Together with electric vehicle and automated driving technology, the above scenario is not a distant future.
The solar road panels also generate electric power. There are 28,000 square miles of road surface area in the United States. If all of the nation’s road surfaces were changed to solar panels, we would have three times the generating capacity of what we are currently using!
Rather than a few thousand temporary jobs building the Keystone Pipeline that will only enable more greenhouse gases to pollute the planet; a massive program to build solar highways would provide tens of thousands of jobs over a very long time. While building these new roads, charge-as-you-go technology would make electric car range essentially indefinite. Battery packs in the cars would be much smaller and have a lower climate impact during production as well as reduced cost. Self-driving technology would be standard. Solar roads could pay for themselves, not only in electricity generated, but in lower road maintenance costs.
Environmental benefits would be reduced runoff of chemicals from roads, virtually no air pollution and greenhouse gases from vehicles, roadways would be much quieter. Open space and farm land would not be wasted on solar fields (such as Rockford’s). Accident rates would plummet with the implementation of self-driving technology. The vehicles computers would all talk to one another and coordinate traffic situations. Getting stuck on the interstate due to an accident would be a thing of the past. You’ll know exactly how long it will take to get somewhere before you leave.
Political benefits are the end of buying oil from nations who fund terrorism. They can keep their oil. We won’t need it. Nearly full employment would reduce crime in our cities. With so many good things to say for solar roads, we should make this a national priority.
(Photos courtesy of Solar Roadways)